Posted on: | January 19th, 2019
Author: Mary Fitzgerald

Grand Bourgtheroulde is a small town of just over 4,000 inhabitants deep in the heart of Normandy in northern France. Like many towns of its size in rural France, it has felt an increasing sense of marginalisation, of belonging to ‘La France périphérique’ as an influential 2014 essay by geographer Christophe Guilluy put it.

So it was the embattled French President Emmanuel Macron who chose Grand Bourgtheroulde as the place to launch this week a national debate to address rising discontent with his government following more than two months of protests by the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests).

Grand Bourgtheroulde has its own yellow vests movement: a demonstration last weekend ended in clashes with police. Graffiti scrawled over protective boarding on a local butcher’s window reads «The era of the kings is over» – a reference to Macron, criticised as imperious by many French and derided by the yellow vests as «president of the rich».

His arrival in the company of 600 mayors from across France was not without drama. Security was tight and demonstrations banned, as were sales of flammable products for several days before. Nevertheless, there were confrontations between the local gendarmes and a handful of yellow vests.

There was tear gas in the air and two men were arrested as Macron spoke.

In an open letter on Sunday, Macron – whose ratings are hovering around 30pc – called for «a new contract for the nation». In Grand Bourgtheroulde, he repeated that while his government was prepared to listen to grievances, it would not tolerate violence. «Anger never constituted a solution,» he argued.

In the nine weeks of its existence, the yellow vests – so named because they wear the high-visibility vests French motorists are required to carry in their vehicles – have evolved from a leaderless and largely spontaneous movement initially sparked by fuel tax hikes to a more fractious blend of significant far-right and far-left components, largely inchoate but united by anti-establishment sentiment.

As the number participating in their protests has shrunk – after Macron announced a series of concessions including suspending the fuel levy – from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, an uglier face has emerged.

Several rallies have turned violent, with ‘casseurs’ or wreckers looting shops, attacking government buildings and clashing with police.

Some linked to the movement have been openly racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim. Dozens of parliamentarians have been threatened or had their offices and homes vandalised.

Polling suggests about 40pc support the far-right National Rally, the new incarnation of the Front National led by Marine Le Pen, Macron’s main challenger in the 2017 presidential election.

Macron has said the national debate, which will take place online and in French municipalities over the next two months, will focus on four key themes: taxation, the environment, reform of state institutions and public services and the future of democracy and the role of citizenship.

Nothing, Macron has claimed, is «taboo» but he has already ruled out reintroducing the wealth tax he cut early in his presidency in a bid to promote investment.

To the chagrin of many of his more liberal supporters, Macron included the question of immigration in his open letter outlining the nationwide consultation, asking whether citizens wanted annual immigration quotas.

He said France had a long history of welcoming refugees fleeing war or persecution. It was open to economic migrants seeking a better life but «this tradition is being shaken by tensions and doubts over immigration and the failings of our system of integration».

The issue of immigration has not been a headlining demand for the yellow vests but Macron clearly feels it will chime with those who support Le Pen and her party, which has long had an anti-immigration platform.

The question of what the yellow vests want can be a vexed one, given how inchoate the movement has been.

A popular online petition by one prominent figure in the yellow vests included three key demands: lowering taxes, cutting the salaries of elected representatives and establishing citizens’ initiative referendums with powers to propose or halt legislation, amend the constitution and remove a member of government.

Others – particularly those who say they will not be satisfied with anything less than Macron’s departure – are boycotting the national debate, claiming it is nothing more than government manipulation. These more conspiracy-minded elements are also deeply suspicious of the media and their online vitriol has tipped into physical attacks on journalists covering the protests.

Polls show the yellow vests – despite the violence that has often marked their protests -still retain significant support among the wider population. If Macron’s national debate fails to shift the mood, France faces a distinctly yellow-tinged 2019.

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